Runner's Market
follow TR
Bookmark and Share  
Custom Search



by Guy Avery

The long run has been a staple of American distance running since Bill Bowerman first brought the concept back from his conversations with legendary New Zealand distance coach and pioneer, Arthur Lydiard. Although popularized by popular running author, Joe Henderson in his early books, the "long run" remains an oft-confused concept by many coaches and runners.

When performed properly, regular long distance runs will pay huge dividends in your training progress and racing performance. The physiologcal benefits of a consistemt period of weekly or bi-weekly (every other week) long, easy run are significant indeed.

When runners (and their coaches) are reminded or made aware of the considerable benefits acquired from longer, aerobic endurance runs, they are apt to re-consider exactly how to perform them for optimal short- and long-term benefits.


The scientific literature is loaded with observations of the evidence of the inner, physiological changes that take place with long, aerobic distance runs. These benefits include:

1. A major increase in capillary beds and development of capillary networks in the lungs and leg muscles to better take in and transport oxygen via the bloodstream.
2. A major increase in the number and volume of oxidative enzymes and mitochondria in the muscle cells to better process and utilize oxygen within the cells to make energy.
3. A significant shift toward economically sparing the body's limited muscle glycogen as fuel, by utilizing a much larger percent of the virtually unlimited free fatty acids for energy, thus providing an ability to increase endurance and stamina.
4. Teaching certain versatile fast-twitch muscle fibers to gain the favorable endurance-oriented characteristics of slow-twitch muscle fibers, enabling them to participate more fully in stamina- and endurance-related tests.
5. Increased tendon, ligament and connective tissue strength, drastically reducing the risk of injury.

Ultimately doing your long runs the right way, will improve your performance at events as short as the 800-meters (half-mile) up to the marathon will increase your ability to take in, transport, process, and utilize oxygen and fuel more efficiently as well as improving the endurance capabilities of your muscle cells, fibers and connective tissues.

How much of these benefits are acquired by any given runner will largely depend on how they perform their long runs, and how well-balanced the rest of their training is with their long run.


The following is a descriptive list of 10 guidelines about how to perform your long runs for maximum aerobic endurance gains:

1. Start out very, very slow

Start out literally jogging lightly for the first 15-20 minutes so your body's systems can gradually become accustomed to the task a hand. It's a long run, so why rush it or ruin it in the beginning and make the run feel any longer than it already is? Give yourself ample time to gently bring all your physiological systems up to gear and to a sustainable state. This allows the body to activate the use of its virtually unlimited supply of free fatty acids, as well as spare limited muscle glycogen stores and significantly lower your risk of injury.

2. Run on a relatively flat and even surface

Major changes in terrain or surface force the body to negotiate additional stresses and even enter an "anaerobic" energy running zone on hilly portions of the run. This will actually detract from the physiological intention of these runs as it will hinder the specific aerobic physiological benefits. It is still a good idea to vary your terrain and surface as much as possible on the whole during each training week in order to strengthen your feet and prevent the repetitive motion syndrome so common with distance runners. However, for the purpose of maximizing aerobic endurance, the more flat and more smooth the aerobic effort, the better results will be garnered.

3. Talk test

The ability to hold a conversation unimpeded by major breathing difficulties, is the best "effort" guideline for maximizing aerobic endurance from these runs. From a pure effort guideline, after that first 15-20 minutes of easing into the run, roughly 55-70% of perceived effort is a good range. From a heart rate standpoint, roughly 65-75% of your maximum heart rate will generally correlate with a 50-75% perceived effort.

4. How fast?

For most runners, from a pace standpoint, the following overlapping, general, pace-per-mile guidelines apply:

  • 30-45 seconds per mile slower than your marathon race pace,
  • 45-75 seconds per mile slower than your half-marathon race pace.
  • 75-90 seconds per mile slower than your 10k pace.
  • 90-120 seconds (1:30 to 2-minutes) slower than your 5k race pace.

Keep in mind, these are rough estimates only -- as effort and heart rate guidelines are actually a better indication of whether the primary aerobic endurance energy system is actually being used. Runners vary considerably in the ratio of muscle fiber distribution and in general running economy

5. Minimum length

From a duration standpoint, a long run (in my terminology) is at least 90 minutes (1.5 hours) in duration of continuous running. Research shows that after 105 minutes (1 hour and 45 minutes), an exponential increase in the number and size of oxidative enzymes and mitochondria occurs. In addition, after about 120 minutes (2 hours) of continuous aerobic running, deep, microscopic capillaries begin to increase in size, and ultimately, in oxygen-carrying capacity.

6. Maximum length

Also, a good upper limit for your long run length or duration is twice the length or duration of your average weekly run. For instance, if you run 5 days a week and are running 30 miles total on the other 4 days a week, you are averaging 7.5 miles a run (30 miles divided by 4 running days = 7.5), then 15 miles would be twice your average weekly run, giving you an upper limit of your long run (2 x 7.5 miles = 15 mile long run).

7. How many?

The total number of long runs needed to maximize long run (or aerobic endurance) benefits is 6-10 total long runs. These 6-10 long runs can be performed on a weekly basis or every-other-weekly basis. In other words, 6 longs can be performed in a 6- to 12-week period for maximum benefit; 10 long runs can be performed within a 10- to 20 week time frame.

8. Mixing with 'Steady State' or 'Tempo' runs

If you are performing at least one weekly 'steady state' run (medium-length run at 80-85% effort) or one weekly moderate lactate threshold session (tempo run or "cruise reps") then a weekly long run, or 3 long runs every 4 weeks with one race weekend every 4 weeks, is preferred. If you are simply laying an aerobic conditioning foundation or "base" period with very little other quality during the week, alternating a weekend long run with a weekend steady-state or marathon goal pace run may serve you better.

9. Be rested

Always go into a long run fairly well-rested and usually within 48-72 hours afterwards (easy recovery running), another intense workout can be performed. Notice, I did not say 2 days but 48-72 hours. For example, a Saturday evening long run would allow you to run another quality workout on Tuesday evening. A Sunday long run might have you wait until Wednesday for your next quality workout.

10. Recovering from long runs

What things facilitate post-long run recovery? First of all, the long run will deplete significant muscle glycogen stores but it does not have to be considered a hard workout if you keep the long run within the various effort, heart rate, pace and course guidelines. However, the depletion of carbohydrate stores is best replaced as immediately as possible with a carbo-protein liquid recovery drink within 15-30 minutes after the run when the muscles are most receptive to repairing themselves and absorbing energy stores. Fruit-yogurt smoothies (since they are easily digested) within an hour or so afterwards can speed the recovery process - as well as ample eating complex carbohydrates the remainder ofthe day - will re-stock muscle glycogen stores and enable much faster and fuller post-Iong run recovery.


The long run is a cornerstone of better distance running training. If performed correctly, it can have profoundly positive physiological benefits for taking in and utilizing oxygen efficiently at the muscle fiber and cellular levels. It can also create a greater capacity to handle more quality sessions in your training each week.

The most common mistakes are starting too quickly, running too hard (from an effort or pace standpoint) and/or not focusing on immediate recovery measures.

Understanding your weekly long run as one integral piece of an overall balanced training program by using the above-mentioned effort, heart rate, pace, course and recovery guidelines will allow your entire training to stay in a nice overall balance and keep you making continuous progress in your training and racing.

GUY AVERY is a runner, coach and writer living in Nashville. He is the founding publisher of Peak Running Performance and a regular contributor to both TR and Marathon & Beyond. He can be reached at


HPL PureSport LLC